Fernando Alonso made a bold bid for pole in the Spanish Grand Prix in front of his home fans – only to see defending world champion Kimi Raikkonen snatch the prize away in the dying moments of qualifying.
But Renault’s double world champion will at least be starting from the front row, having split the two Ferraris.
A dominant performance had been expected from the red cars, but neither driver stamped their authority on qualifying – Felipe Massa spent most of the first session down with the backmarkers before finally finding some speed, while Raikkonen was off the last-session pace until his final blistering lap.
Lining up alongside Massa on the second row will be BMW’s Robert Kubica, who handily outqualified his team-mate Nick Heidfeld. Row three is an all-McLaren affair, with Lewis Hamilton ahead of Heikki Kovalainen. Mark Webber and Jarno Trulli fill row four, with Heidfeld and Nelson Piquet behind them.
Jenson Button was an encouraging 13th for Honda and Anthony Davidson – in what could be Super Aguri’s last race – outqualfied team-mate Takuma Sato and was within striking distance of 20th-place Adrian Sutil. But Red Bull’s David Coulthard had a horrible qualifying, failing to make it out of the first session after a tyre gamble backfired.
Lewis Hamilton and team-mate Heikki Kovalainen will be occupying the third row after largely sitting out the fierce battle for pole conducted between their Ferrari, Renault and BMW-driving colleagues.
In his team’s post-qualifying statement Hamilton said: “I am actually quite surprised that we are not higher up the grid as the car felt very good and I put in some strong laps.
“Throughout qualifying one and two the car felt extremely well balanced, but it’s so close which means that it will be an exciting race tomorrow.
“Being on the third row is not the end of the world as we are surrounded by good drivers who all want to finish the race. The key is now to make a strong start and hopefully gain a couple of positions, and I am confident as I believe our race pace is competitive, and we have a good strategy.”
McLaren team principal Ron Dennis added: “Of course we would have preferred to be higher up the grid, but from row three anything can happen.
“We are well prepared, and I believe our strategy will prove competitive. The race will be interesting as there are a number of drivers capable of winning which is great for the fans, and I am sure that Lewis, Heikki and the entire team will put in strong performances.”
Jenson Button will be starting from 13th place while team-mate Rubens Barrichello narrowly missed out on Q3 and will be starting from 11th – although he later said he thought this might be a better result than facing the fuelling restrictions that 10th place would have imposed.
Button said after the session: “Qualifying was just so close today and it was a tough session for us.
“On my last run, I took some front wing off as the rear end was twitchy and I had too much understeer. This was really useful as we found it made the rear end more stable and didn’t give me any more understeer, so it’s a question of trying to understand the car and catching up on the time that I missed last week.
“I’m happy with our position going into the race and we’ll see what happens and what we can take advantage of.”
Steve Clark, Honda’s head of race and test engineering, added: “We have certainly improved the car with our latest developments, however the same is true of our near competitors and the goalposts are moving all the time.
“We know Barcelona very well as the teams test here all the time. The field is very tight and with it being so close we are probably seeing the absolute pace for the first time this season.”
David Coulthard had a disastrous qualifying session with his Red Bull failing to make it past Q1, despite team-mate Mark Webber’s steady progress to Q3 and a seventh-place grid slot.
As a result he is due to start the race in 17th position and team principal Christian Horner has made it clear that he expects Coulthard to make up places.
The Scot said he was shocked by the outcome: “After this morning, I thought we were looking good for making it into Q3, we took a risk and it didn’t work.
“We believed we were fast enough to go through the first session only using prime tyres, which take longer to warm up than the options. Under normal conditions, if you put in a hard outlap, then using primes like that shouldn’t be a problem, but unfortunately it didn’t work out for us today.
“I dropped some time in turn 12, but the problem occurred at the start of the lap. I went out in a bunch of traffic and had Sutil behind me, so I couldn’t back off, which compromised warming up the tyres.”
Horner added: “After a promising first run, David unfortunately dropped a little bit of time in the third sector, which was the difference between Q1 and Q2 today, so it’s going to be a busy afternoon for him tomorrow.”
Anthony Davidson for Super Aguri professed himself disappointed after emerging from a shaky week to qualify 21st – with only team-mate Takuma Sato behind him on the grid.
He said, post-session: “Today was quite a tough qualifying for everyone in the team. The boys did a great job; I put a great lap together and I’m very proud of everyone and the job we have done all week.
“The car had quite a good balance, as good as it could be for qualifying, and I would like to personally thank my engineer Richard Lane for doing such a great job all weekend.”
Graham Taylor, the team’s sporting director, added: “It was actually quite a good Saturday for us. The cars ran reliably and the team went about their business in the normal manner.
“Anthony found the best balance for his last run in qualifying, whilst Takuma just lost out. The Super Aguri F1 Team once again showed determination by being even closer to our next opponent than in Bahrain. We are all looking forward to racing tomorrow.”